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March to mosque provokes worst fears

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2003

NAJAF, Iraq -- In a region where religion often means the difference between peace and war, life and death, faith was as calming as oil on roiling waters Thursday. Then the oil ignited.

Commanders of the 101st Airborne Division went seeking the crucial support of one of Iraq's leading holy men, but instead riled an angry crowd that mistakenly thought soldiers were trying to capture the ayatollah or attack his mosque, one of the most sacred sites in Islam.

The incident marked a step back in the 101st Airborne's otherwise successful mission to court local residents while driving out Iraqi fighters and destroying their war machine in this ancient city. One hundred miles south of Baghdad, it's a place where residents still visit bakeries at dawn for their daily flatbread and donkey carts are as common as cars.

Thursday's events also highlighted two potential trouble spots for the U.S. and British forces trying to overthrow Iraq's repressive regime: The depth of fear many people, including religious leaders, still have for fedayeen militants and Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party, and the cultural disconnect between the Western invaders and the Muslims who live here.

Even with U.S. forces in every quarter of town, and most of the fedayeen fighters killed or gone, residents are shy about being seen helping them. "No way, no way. That's dangerous," one man told an inquiring reporter after he spoke to several soldiers. "They're going to hang me now if I say a word."

This was the third day for U.S. ground forces in Najaf, and it started splendidly for them.

After failing to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein Sistani the day before, Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the Airborne's 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, led about 130 soldiers and several gun trucks back to the ayatollah's neighborhood around the Ali Mosque to try again.

Sistani is grand ayatollah at the Ali Mosque here, which is believed to be the final resting place of Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed.

Hussein long has viewed Sistani as an archenemy of his regime, and put the cleric under house arrest nine years ago.

When the soldiers arrived just after dawn, they learned Sistani had issued a written and oral statement to local residents urging peace, asking them to take care of each other and to protect the city.

If the Americans continued working well with citizens for two more days, Sistani's missive said, he would issue a fatwa -- a religious and legal decree -- condoning the U.S. mission here and encouraging Iraqis to actively cooperate.

Army intelligence officials said Sistani's support would bolster resistance to Hussein's regime among Shiite Muslims across Iraq and improve the United States' reception across the country.

"This is a big win, brother, a big win," a Special Forces operative told Hughes as he delivered the news.

The next step seemed easy enough: Sistani had agreed to meet Thursday with an old friend and fellow holy man who would serve as the Airborne's emissary. To solidify the Americans' hold on the city and allow them to withdraw, the Airborne wants Sistani's support and counsel about how to stabilize Najaf.

The crowds were friendly and cheerful as the soldiers waited two hours for the emissary.

As part of the agreement, Sistani asked for security because he fears being assassinated if he supports the Americans. But as the first few soldiers from B Company, 2nd Battalion, turned from a wide commercial boulevard onto the Golden Road to the mosque, the crowd grew agitated.

The Golden Road, it seems, is holy, too, and the sight of armed American soldiers and their gun trucks rolling toward it was not popular. Special Forces operatives said they suspect fedayeen or Baath Party officials also incited residents by spreading false rumors about the Americans' intentions.

An Iraqi interpreter working with Special Forces hopped on the loudspeaker and told the crowd the Americans had been invited to see Sistani. But it was too late, and the crowd was too angry. Several hundred chanting Muslims pressed against the line of American soldiers.

Hoping to salvage the situation, Hughes ran through his men, ordering them to lower their guns, drop to one knee, and appear as benign as possible.

"Smile, guys, everybody smile," Hughes shouted above the din. Most did their best, grinning ear to ear. "Watch yourselves and smile."

It didn't work. The crowd grew to at least 1,000 over the next 20 minutes. Their chanting grew louder, they pushed harder against the kneeling Americans. Someone threw a rock into the window of a Humvee. A teenage boy broke through the soldiers' line.

Hughes rushed through his men again, realizing the problem. Sistani's fear of assassination had kept him from coming outside to tell his people he had requested the soldiers' protection. Hughes grabbed the microphone from the interpreter.

"All vehicles, all No Slack soldiers, calmly stand up and withdraw from this situation. Straight back. Draw back slowly," Hughes called through the loudspeaker.

"These people do not understand that they asked us to come in. We'll let them sort it out. Let's defuse the situation. ... We'll go so the people understand we are not trying to hurt him. C'mon, Bravo, back off. ... Smile and wave and back off."

They retreated around the corner, then back another 100 yards. Chanting Muslims rushed them again, and once again, Hughes ordered his men to take a knee and smile. The crowd was not mollified. "This is about to get ugly," said Sgt. 1st Class Pernell Wilson, 33, of Philadelphia.

Less than 10 minutes later, No Slack was marching back toward its compound in an abandoned school compound about two miles away. They plan to try again this morning.

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